Storms topple New England's trees, raising residents' fears
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
The NEW YORK TIMES | December 04,2012
New York Times Photo
A tree broken during Hurricane Sandy sits atop a house in Munsey Park, N.Y., on Nov. 2
WILBRAHAM, Mass. — First came the tornado, which felled five big trees and sent them crashing down on half the house, forcing Heather Mercier and Ellie Tobiasz to move into a mobile home on their property while the house was being repaired.
Several weeks later, a microburst with ferocious winds tore up another tree by its roots and smashed it into the mobile home. Three months after that, an early blizzard knocked down two more big trees, wrecking the remaining part of their house.
“You'd think we lived in Kansas,” said Mercier, 52, a retired police officer on disability. “Things like this don't happen in western Massachusetts.”
But as residents across New England are realizing, violent, “Wizard of Oz”-like storms do happen here. And for some, the region's iconic sugar maples, birches and oaks — majestic towers that provide shade in the summer and colorful splendor in the fall — are no longer a source of pride but of terror.
“The branches were like daggers sticking out of my roof, through the windows, through the floors,” Mercier said.
Although Hurricane Sandy was not as destructive in New England as it was in New York and New Jersey, its high winds still blew over tens of thousands of trees in the region, pulling down utility lines and leaving millions of homeowners in the dark. Last year, a half-dozen tornadoes — some with winds as high as 160 mph — ripped through Springfield, Mass., just west of here, killing three people, injuring 200 and leaving 500 homeless. A few months later, Tropical Storm Irene decimated parts of Vermont, washing away homes, businesses and roadways, and bringing down more trees.
All of the wreckage, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and the fear it has engendered have led to something of a miniwar on trees here, with some property owners cutting them down pre-emptively, even when trunks and branches show no signs of weakness.
“People were envisioning having entire trees crashing down on their houses and there was a lot of panic,” said Phil Cambo, president of Northern Tree Service, a tree-removal company that serves much of New England.
During the 2011 tornado, microburst and blizzard, he said, his phones rang off the hook. As Hurricane Sandy made its way up the Atlantic Coast a month ago, many homeowners were on the phone again.
“People are looking at trees near their homes in a different manner,” said Ed Miga, superintendent of Wilbraham's Department of Public Works. “It's no longer, 'This is a nice shade tree.' It's 'This tree could fall on my house.'”
Springfield lost tens of thousands of trees during last year's tornadoes and early snowstorm, costing $38 million for tree cleanup alone, said Edward P. Casey, the city forester.
“When we were taking trees down after the tornadoes, people were terrified,” Casey said. “They would say, `Take the big one down, it's going to crush my house,' “ he said.
Despite the fear and damage, many residents, towns and organizations insist their presence is worth the risk.
Trees not only add character and beauty to a property, but they also benefit the environment, trapping carbon dioxide, one of the major contributing greenhouse gases, and releasing oxygen. And they help protect against erosion and maintain the balance of the ecosystem.
Several storm-battered towns across New England have undertaken extensive replanting programs — though many programs encourage the planting of smaller trees, like fruit trees and dogwoods, rather than the pines and maples that, when mature, can cause the most damage.
Many New England towns authorize local tree wardens to determine the health of shade trees and ban their removal unless they pose a hazard. Springfield has a “significant tree ordinance” under which a homeowner needs a permit to trim or cut down any tree that is more than 36 inches in diameter or more than 75 years old, even if it is on private property, Casey said. If the tree is structurally unsound, he will issue a permit. But if it is healthy, the homeowner must petition the parks commission before trimming or removing it.
“Homeowners don't want to accept that,” Casey said. “Some people are still angry and upset. But I leave them with the idea that if I thought the tree was dangerous, it would be removed.”
Utility companies often bear the brunt of complaints during a storm when homeowners lose power, and utilities blame the trees. “Trees are the No. 1 cause of power outages,” said Mike Durand, a spokesman for Nstar, which serves eastern Massachusetts.
Of particular concern are those trees near the big transmission lines, which carry power to thousands of customers.
In August, a single tree that fell on a transmission line in Greenwich, Conn., took out power to 30,000 customers. The blackout of 2003 began when a tree fell on a transmission line in Ohio, setting off a cascade of events that shut off power to 55 million people in eight states and Canada.
Still, when Nstar started cutting down trees to clear transmission lines in Needham, a western suburb of Boston, homeowners were up in arms. The town is a designated “Tree City USA,” which means it receives assistance for forestry programs and takes great pride in the leafy canopies that shade its streets and homes.
Mark McDonough, a Needham resident and a Realtor, said that losing the trees “changes the character of the town,” and that mature trees improve a property's value. “It's harder to sell a home if you have no trees,” he said.
Kim Pelletier, another Needham resident, said that a large tree fell on her property during Hurricane Sandy but that it did not hit the house and did not inspire her to cut down other trees.
“These trees have been here a lot longer than we have and they have withstood a lot so far,” she said. “You can't safeguard against everything. Otherwise you lose the point of living.”